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The inspiration from the 550 is unmistakable: Michael Mauer on the Porsche 914’s design

Published in blog.hemmings.com

[Editor’s Note: We were pleased to review Jurgen Lewandowski’s “50 Years Porsche 914” in the February 2020 issue of Hemmings Motor News, and after discussing the book with the publisher, Delius Klasing, they were happy to let us run an excerpt from the English-language version, specifically the chapter in which current Porsche design boss Michael Mauer discussed the 914’s design with Lewandowski.]

The idea came from Porsche. Ferry Porsche wanted an entry-level Porsche that would give younger drivers affordable access to the Porsche world. The car that was subsequently developed and that reached the market as the 914 in a cooperation between Volkswagen and Porsche almost failed. Born at a time of power struggles and disagreements between Volkswagen and Porsche, subjectively speaking the 914 is neither fish nor fowl: not a Volkswagen, but not a “genuine” Porsche either.

In retrospect, this does not fit with the basic principles that first inspired development. The 914 is a typical Porsche. Why? Firstly because it is innovative. Secondly, and this is the key, because the car’s beating heart is a mid-engine. Form follows function. The 914 is a typical Porsche, even if it doesn’t look like one at first glance. The first known draft design supports this argument perfectly.

The design of the 914 was the work of Ferdinand Alexander Porsche and his team. The design that finally went into series production was the work of one of his most important employees, Heinrich Klie. Klie acted a confidante for Ferry Porsche’s eldest son when he took over responsibility for design at his father’s company. Even though the actual start of development was dated to August 1966, older designs can be found among the holdings at the Porsche AG Historical Archives, entitled: “914, Model 1, August 1964, Design: Klie”. Klie described the development work as an iterative process in which the management allowed the designers a largely free hand. He explained that modifications were only discussed following the presentation of the 1:5 scale models. One thing was certain for Ferdinand Alexander Porsche: “The 914 was always a completely independent design and was a success in formal terms.”

Michael Mauer, responsible for Porsche Design since 2004 and thus only the third head of design after Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, talks about the similarity between the first draft and the prototype 550 Spyder, the design process followed then and now, and the development of the Porsche brand identity:

Michael Mauer: You can see the 550 Spyder quite clearly in Model 1 from 1964. The questions that immediately spring to mind are what were the specifications and what was the basic orientation? To create an entry-level Porsche, it would also have been possible to further develop the 912 concept, in other words a four-cylinder 911. Why did they decide yet again on the mid-engine concept? The inspiration from the 550 is unmistakable. For me as a designer, this is understandable, because the car was smaller and more agile than its competitors. Minimalism at its purest. It is only logical that this should be used as the inspiration and starting point for the development of a new model.

Porsche 914 Model 1.

From the 550 concept to the 914. Was this an evolution that resulted in a separate new model in 1969?
When I look closely I don’t see this as a formal evolution. The models show clearly that the 914 did not really have a predecessor as such. The various designs, some of which are very different, formally demonstrate the search for a concept based around the 550 theme. This was already quite high-tech for its time, but still a real racing car. The idea of once again building a small mid-engined car seemed obvious. That was the guiding principle.

The first design from 1964 was followed by Model 2, which took things in a completely different direction. It was actually a lot more elegant and a lot less sporty. This reminds me of a lot of things, but the words “small, sporty and purist” don’t immediately come to mind. I see this as a relatively major departure, showing that the search was relatively open-minded at the time. By contrast, Model 3 was already the starting point for the near-series design of July 1967. Taking account of the chronology, it is possible to see whether the work was carried out successively or in parallel. The dates show that the working practices were different from today.

Porsche 914 Model 3.

How does the design process work now?
It all depends on the type of project. Are we dealing with a genuine follow-up project? If so then everything runs like clockwork. There is a defined period, about six to nine months, for the creative phase. This is based on an existing package – after all there was a previous version and we’re making a successor. We then produce five models. In all of them you can see right from the start that this is a Panamera. It may be different from its predecessor, but you can clearly see from the outset: it’s going to be a Panamera.

Things were a little different when I first joined Porsche in 2004. The first Panamera was in the very early stages at the time. The basic principle had been agreed: it was to be a four-door model with four seats. However the segment in which the new model was to compete changed. The size changed from a medium-sized vehicle to the luxury class. So there were clear differences.

There is another situation: something like the search for a brand new series. It might be an SUV, but it might also be a small sports car, or maybe it could be something else entirely. In this case the process is completely open to begin with.

The design process for the 914 uses the five models from 1964 to 1967 to show exactly this search for a new series alongside the 911. One or other models might be used. The result is fairly open. Little by little progress is made through the mutual inspirations found in discussions. If you’re discussing a small entry-level Porsche, then certain parameters are already set. The basic package has been defined, but the formal look can vary enormously. In sequential terms we started with “something like the 550”, after which the discussion obviously took off in a different direction.

So we went from a successor to the 550 for the 1970’s to a design that looked quite different in the end?
Significantly different! This is already apparent in the second design, which I think is sensational. It almost seems American in inspiration. The fourth model is not modern at all and then we come to this one (editor’s note: Model 5, from Klie). The rear and the sequential flow are incredibly modern for its time. Sleek and clean. It’s a perfect fit. That’s why it surprises me so much that the design from May 1966 (editor’s note: Model 2) was also the work of F. A. Porsche, because it really doesn’t fit with his design philosophy.

If you look at the first model from 1964 and compare it with the development two years later, it has none of the characteristics or appearance of the basic idea behind the 550. The result is comparable to the development from the 356 to the 911. Designing a new model of such modernity represented an incredibly courageous step. The Model 3 914 marked the start of this move towards modernity. You just have to look at the front panels – these clear surfaces. Great proportions. The July 1966 design is quite different, more like Model 2. These are two competing designs that could have been the basis for lively discussion. In my opinion they made absolutely the right decision at the time, choosing the clearly more modern design.

The initial designs differed significantly, after which one started to build on the other and the subsequent designs were produced simultaneously by two different designers.
At the end of the day, these designers worked on the same project and would have talked to one another. Let’s compare this with today’s process: we have a phased approach, as in the development of the Panamera. At the time we knew what we wanted, the concept was in place and we had basically come up with two variants – one like this, the other like that. And, just as we saw in the models for the 914, people work side-by-side. They inspire one another in a process similar to cross-pollination. You take a look across and see something you like and incorporate it into your design.

So design is always a team effort?

That’s right. Design is not the work of one individual – not for us at least. This is something I firmly believe in. Of course there are still some small manufacturers who still use individual designers to come up with their cars. And that’s OK. The result might be fantastic, but it might also be terrible.

For Porsche it’s a question of team work. When you have several people at work, they inspire one another. That’s precisely the feeling you get with the 914 and this also fits in with the chronological sequence. You can see from the models from May 1966 and July 1966 that a certain amount of discussion took place. Things can be seen to move in a common direction; of course, there are different models from different people, but they all share a similar character.

Is the design process identified for the 914 in any way comparable to modern design work?

Obviously they followed a different process at the time. These days we have a defined time window. In the end the design department comes up with five or six models, from which maybe two are chosen. Back then, it seems the process was: you made a model and this was then put up for discussion. The team determined that things weren’t quite there yet. So they moved on to the next draft design. In other words they worked in a more sequential way. The next model still wasn’t quite right yet. It needed to be more modern. Then F. A. made his input and the team seemed to feel more comfortable because the last model from Klie really builds on this. A path had been found. The design was beginning to take a definite shape, while before it was more a matter of experimentation.

A designer is always an artist. How does an artist know when his painting is finished? How does the designer know when his work is done?
It is never done. If the controller or production department did not take that out of our hands, we’d probably still be working on it. We’d never finish. After the sketch phase and scale model construction comes the 1:1 model phase. Things change yet again at this stage. In theory we could continue working forever. This needs doing and that needs changing. There’s always something. Eventually, however, the point is reached where the design has to be finished so that the product can reach the market by a certain time. This is called the “design freeze”. These days this happens between two and two- and-a-half years before the car come to market.

The 1969 914 is a genuine mid-engine Porsche. Admittedly it looks quite different from the 911. Are elements like the targa roll bar actually ways to formally underline family cohesion?
A sports car with a mid-engine is in fact typical of Porsche. At the time of the Auto Union, the competition started with a front-mounted engine, while Porsche developed the first mid-engine race car. The 356 “No.1” roadster is also a mid-engine vehicle. That had to be changed in the interests of mass production. It is easy to understand Ferry Porsche’s idea in this context: we’re going to make another powerful entry-level car. The mid-engine is the right concept in this context.

The targa top was in fact a solution to safety issues and the new regulations from the United States. The fact is that an open, reduced, minimalist concept like the 550 or maybe the Speedster, calls for a minimalist roof at most. However, if the latest statutory regulations no longer allow this, the way is clear for the 914. Internally we had already found a good solution that would combine open-top driving and safety: the targa roll bar. After all, the idea was to combine “openness” and “safety,” and now it was time to do something quite new! The final design is characteristic of the styling philosophy followed under Ferdinand Alexander Porsche’s management.

This common feature almost automatically created a brand identity. However this was almost certainly not the original intention.

Does the concept dictate the form?
This is still my experience with Porsche. The first question asked is: what would be the best concept? Entry- level, minimalist, sporty. At the end of the day, what do I really need in order to enjoy driving? That’s where the mid-engine comes in. It seems like an obvious step to transfer the formal characteristics. The position of the engine makes it possible for me to achieve particularly attractive proportions. The 914 certainly has the typical proportions of a mid-engine car. I wasn’t aware of anything comparable, certainly not at that time.

A question arises about timing: the first model dates from 1964, and the 914 finally reached the market in 1969. Is that fast? What are things like today?
For the new 911, which we presented at the end of 2018, it took about four years from the very first sketch to the market launch. In this case (note: Type 992) we are dealing with a further development of an existing model, rather than a completely new development. However the 914 was developed from scratch. Work began in about 1964 and the car reached the market in 1969, in other words five years later. That’s really something! Things moved astonishingly fast, particularly between 1967 and 1969. That’s really fast. These days we have to allow 24 months for the production of molds for complex parts like the bumper alone.

Porsche 914 Model 5.

Details like the front end, particularly the headlights, were the subject of much discussion. A choice needed to be made between dual headlights or single headlights.
The pop-up dual headlights were more coherent in design terms. This is particularly the case when you remember the times. Concepts like this in 1965 or 1967? Crazy. The philosophical question is also interesting from my point of view. The 911 had single round headlights and the cheaper car needed to have two? That made no sense. Nonetheless, the designs are really cutting edge.

Following a review of various design variants, the 914 eventually made it onto the street with raised wings and distinctive turn signals.
This was consistent with Porsche’s use of fins in its designs. The idea was that the outer edges of the wings would enable the driver to judge the position of his car more accurately. This is something that had its genesis at Porsche in the 911. It is a particularly useful feature when negotiating a mountain pass in a 911. In many other sports cars you can only see the panels, but not where your car ends. These distinctive wings provide guidance when you’re sitting in the car.

This feature is also used in the 914. I’m not sure whether the issue of brand identity – today we would refer to this as the “movement across the hood” – played a role at this point. Probably not. Conversely, a few years ago, the design of the Panamera’s wings was not about forming fins, but rather about communicating brand identity. Established through the 911, this was now being transferred to a vehicle in a completely different segment. This is difficult enough with a front-mounted engine – but here it was clearly a stylistic element aimed at communicating brand identity.

The 914 has an astoundingly good drag coefficient of 0.37. Even with the headlights raised and without complex computer simulations. Does modern technology restrict the influence of human design?
Despite all the simulations and modern technology, I believe that we are not limited in our creativity. Things have not really changed since the 1960s. Naturally the designers had some basic knowledge at the time. For example they knew what worked well or less well in aerodynamic terms. Today we know that indentations in front of the wheels and sharp indentations behind them are the worst thing for a car’s aerodynamics. If you consider the brutal linearity of the 914, this is a response to the search for an extremely modern form. It then seems likely that the aim of building a very modern car resulted in wonderful aerodynamics. No doubt this is not a coincidence, as there were plenty people in the company who knew from the start exactly what would work and what would not, despite the lack of modern simulation processes.

In the old days engineers were also designers. How much technical engineering does a designer need to know these days?
You need to have a basic understanding. There are certain things you can’t achieve without a basic knowledge. Otherwise, it would be impossible to argue against the classic engineers when doubts arise.

The interaction between the two disciplines can be described effectively using the example of the first Cayenne. A crazy move for Porsche. A Porsche in the SUV segment? Could that work? How can the brand identity of the 911 be transferred to the new car? How do I incorporate the same design language in the nose area, while at the same time accommodating the V8 engine?

Another example of this is the Panamera. Here the key feature was the marked tapering of the cabin toward the rear. This eventually led to the decision to make this a four-door vehicle. This strong shoulder and tapering design would not have been possible with a fifth seat. These are now routine daily discussions. The design needs to secure brand identity. Competition is growing, making it increasingly difficult for a brand to differentiate itself in the long term by technology alone. Brand identity was certainly not the main concern in the 914, as a glance at the vehicle interior reveals. There were functional reasons for the dashboard with central tachometer. It made for better visibility. It takes a number of years before such a design feature becomes a means for creating a brand identity. Were there other vehicles with the tachometer in the middle at the time? The simple fact that it was so prominently placed in the field of vision is now regarded as typical for Porsche. This originated from what the guys who made the car back then expected from the product.

Function is not the only reason for a design. We designers also need to consider costs. No doubt this was also true in the past. Re-using insights from what was learned in the past was also a cost-cutting strategy. You come across things that you’ve already seen before, not just through learning, but also in production.

I don’t really believe that strong brands originated in the desire to create a brand identity, but that this came about because people followed functionalities, aiming to achieve a degree of ergonomic efficiency and a certain quality standard. It is the consequence of a particular expectation regarding the way a car should handle. This is then applied to product A, then to product B and C, at which stage its start to look like a recurring motif in the product’s history. Gradually a brand’s design identity starts to form.

How would you assess the design of the 914 from a personal perspective?
I still find the car quite bizarre, but my impression has changed during the course of this conversation. I never really thought too hard about the 914 until now. As a result of the last hour’s discussion and the fact that I have understood the times in which the car originated, I come back to my original point – the thing is incredibly modern, particularly with regard to the initial models. It’s incredibly impressive to see how the results are way ahead of anything else at the time. This wasn’t really on my radar until now. The car has almost no floor plan, but this central element is extremely consistent. To have the courage to design such a big surface without a single bead or extraneous element is genuinely awesome. I really like the rear of the car. From a modern perspective, the process in getting to this result is quite fascinating. I still have some difficulties with the car, but for me what counts is what was achieved at the time. Producing something like this is incredible. The same goes for the detailed solutions: the wide headlights are just brilliant., as are the minimalist integrated door handles. The way F. A. Porsche and his team succeeded in introducing this pared-back modernity is something I find fascinating – just like the transition from the 356 to the 911. The more I find out about the 914, the more I realize that this is exactly what I am fighting to achieve today – this reduced, purist approach with integrated elements and not a single superfluous line.

Is there a future for a 914? Or does it act as an inspiration at the very least?
This a constant topic of discussion. The real issue is the question of the entry-level Porsche. I find this extremely interesting, but opinions differ on what such a car should look like. Porsche is probably the only brand that could afford to approach this issue in an unusual way. An entry-level Porsche not in terms of price, but rather in the sense of reduced design. A vehicle with almost no electrical parts, everything mechanical and minimal. I find this a really exciting idea.

The other idea is for a car for the target group that drives an Audi TT RS or a Golf R32. A Porsche pitched just a little higher than the cars currently on offer that would also formally express the idea of a very plain and simple car, a modern 550 in the broadest sense. In terms of size, limits become quickly apparent, not least because of safety issues. Hence a certain size is automatically dictated.

Sales may see things a little differently. From this perspective, a really economical entry-level Porsche would be the right choice, but that’s not what interests me. I want reduced purity -”back to our roots”. I believe that the time has come for this. This would be typical for Porsche.

[“50 Years Porsche 914” is available via Amazon or on Delius-Klasing.de.]